Technology is part of everyday life. As workers or consumers, we’ve grown inseparable from our devices. Though you may be familiar with your favorite device’s software and hardware, there’s a third and often overlooked spec: firmware.
Firmware plays a key role in a device’s operation. And there’s a lucrative job market out there for firmware engineers.
What Is a Firmware Engineer?
A firmware engineer creates software that tells a device how to react to inputs. Firmware is a special type of software that controls a device. Cameras, keyboards, TVs, and any other device which interprets input, require firmware built by engineers.
Though there are similarities between software engineers and electrical engineers, firmware engineers combine those professions’ skill sets.
Firmware engineers were once considered distinct from embedded engineers. But these professional lines blurred as embedded systems in products become more intelligent. The job titles of embedded engineer and firmware engineer are now used interchangeably.
What Does a Firmware Engineer Do?
A firmware engineer is responsible for ensuring that an electrical device turns signals into specific operations. The engineers accomplish this by developing embedded software in the memory storage of a product.
These signals can be a pressed button or the turning of a wheel, or as complex as signals from an optical laser that reads disks.
Working With Software
Firmware engineers must have a strong grasp of software development. They’ll be integrating their embedded programs with different software as they design.
Working With Hardware
Firmware engineers also must work closely with the hardware development team. After all, the hardware of a device determines its needs during the firmware development process.
Firmware engineers must know how product elements work to provide the proper software to interpret commands. In this way, they utilize both software and hardware knowledge.
Sometimes advancements in technology require an update to a device’s firmware. For example, maybe a newer generation of a product can’t interact with older devices. Companies have the goal of optimizing the functionality of their products. Firmware engineers are there to help. They will develop and release updates to keep devices operating.
Essential Firmware Engineer Skills
Firmware engineers are key to product development and work with people from all facets of tech design. In this career path, there are certain required skills to make sure things go smoothly.
Firmware engineers are something of a go-between for the worlds of hardware and software design. Because of this, they need to be able to interpret the needs of both sides, hear feedback, and help debug before product launches.
The backbone of firmware engineering is the C programming language. Microchips that interpret inputs and control hardware require C to make their decisions. Many firmware engineers also follow the test driven development (TDD) model to test their work during development.
Comfort With Hardware
Firmware engineers must be knowledgeable about different hardware components to tailor their project’s software. Most firmware engineers tend to continuously work on similar components to ensure their level of expertise with that technology. For example, if a firmware engineer builds software for cameras, they can help when the time comes for updates.
Firmware Engineer Salaries and Job Outlook
The national average salary for a firmware engineer is $107,756 per year, according to ZipRecruiter and ADP. The best place to find full-time work as a firmware engineer is likely in California’s Silicon Valley, where tech companies have taken root.
The outlook for firmware engineer jobs is good as tech continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects software developer jobs to jump by 22 percent by 2028. Firmware engineers are key for ensuring that every new phone and TV works as it should and there are companies of varying sizes that need them to remain profitable.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Firmware Engineer?
It takes anywhere from four months to four years to become a firmware engineer.
There’s not a specific educational requirement to be a firmware engineer. It’s really about having the experience required to satisfy those job alerts that come your way. As a result, one can learn the ropes of firmware engineering on their own or go to college for in-depth education.
How to Become a Firmware Engineer: A Step-by-Step Guide
To be a firmware engineer you’re going to need to learn about hardware, software, and how they interact. Here’s a walkthrough on how to go from beginner to expert and land your dream career.
Step 1: Education
First, determine which route is right for you. Some prefer self-guided study while others like a classroom environment. What’s important is that you learn how to program in C for a variety of devices.
To accomplish this you can go to school or study through online classes. But once you’ve mastered this important aspect, you’re well on your way to becoming a firmware engineer.
Step 2: Study the Hardware
After you’ve mastered C, you’ll need to know how it’s used. You should investigate different electronic components (safely) and research common hardware.
Step 3: Learn About Your Team
At this point, it’s time to combine your understanding of software and hardware to see where a firmware engineer’s responsibilities begin. Firmware engineers never work alone on projects, so it’s a good idea to learn how to operate as part of a team.
Required Education to Become a Firmware Engineer
There are no hard educational requirements to become a firmware engineer. But it does require a lot of learning. Below are some courses that can help you on your journey.
Best Programs and Courses to Become a Firmware Engineer
The best place to start your career as a firmware engineer is to learn programming and computer science. Here are a few ideas on how to take that first step.
- Name: C Programming For Beginners – Master the C Language
- Time: 24 Hours
- Prerequisites: None
- Price: $119.99
This highly-regarded, often updated class gives beginners a crash course on C. The course includes videos, exercises, and quizzes to teach you about this important coding language and its functions.
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The University of Texas at Austin (edX)
- Name: Embedded Systems – Shape The World: Microcontroller Input/Output
- Time: 8 weeks
- Prerequisites: Knowledge of C plus basic physics
- Price: Free
This course gives you real-world experience in coding for devices. It’ll walk you through coding blinking LEDs to programming pacemakers and traffic-light controllers. This is an intermediate course and requires you to have a basic idea of C.
You’ll also get hands-on experience building firmware for Texas Instruments’ TM4C123 microcontroller kit. This experience with hardware can be key to your future in the field.
Carnegie Mellon University
This is the best school for computer engineering in the U.S., according to the US News and World Report.
Their electrical and computer engineering course is almost tailor-made for firmware engineers. It gives pupils a background in hardware and software. Armed with a degree in engineering, you’ll have a headstart in the field.
Should You Become a Firmware Engineer in 2020?
Absolutely. This field is experiencing astronomical growth as technology becomes more and more integrated into our society.
It’s a field that can easily lead to six-figure salaries without a graduate degree. Though you may have to relocate to take full advantage of the opportunities, that’s a small price to pay for a stable career.
This job is a great fit if you’re interested in how the technology around us works. You could be developing devices in no time and be part of a booming tech industry.
Firmware Engineer FAQ
Firmware is part of a device’s self-contained operation. Drivers translate signals to tell an operating system how to use a device. For example, a printer may have firmware to control scanning functions, but it would also need drivers to turn that scan into a savable image.
Firmware is a specific type of software that is designed to live on a device and control its key functions with few, if any updates. Firmware is responsible for translating the basic functions of the device into the work that the device is doing.
Software is a completely digital set of instructions for a computer or device, and when mentioned outside of the context of firmware, it’s usually updated very often for the purposes of optimization and security among other things. Hardware is a physical device or a component of that device.
Firmware engineers operate at the intersection between hardware and software, and so they require a specific skill set that knows how to work with both sides of the field. Firmware engineering is great for people who are interested in more than just the software side.
Most professionals in the field would say that C is still the standard programming language in the position, and you should be able to find a position pretty easily working in C. The field is also be adopting C++. So, after you’ve mastered C, it may be worth getting a handle on C++ in order to expand your options.
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